On Privilege

At first, I wanted to begin with a more academic-sounding sentence, to efface the “I” in favor of a pseudo-objective stance. But that felt silly. It felt like, if I may be self-conscious, an exercise in privilege.

I am not sure what privilege is but whatever it is I am probably against it.

I satirize myself. But, I also want to think more seriously about how to engage “the problem” of privilege.

Online discussions of privilege seem to have recognizable choreography:

Individual Q accuses Individual W of exercising privilege.

Individual W responds in one of 4 ways: 1) Acknowledges exercising privilege and apologizes. 2) Points out W belongs to x group who don’t have any privilege, so W can’t possibly be exercising privilege. 3) Privilege? No such thing. 4) Maintains a sullen silence.

In response to any of these, individual Q asserts that individual W continues to exercise privilege.

The problem (admittedly, there might be several), may not have to do with individual W’s response, at least not only, but also with the nature of Q’s demand. (I’ll drop the letters now.)

When we accuse others, or ourselves, of exercising privilege, what exactly do we mean, and, more importantly, what exactly do we want? At times, it seems as though we desire a confession of culpability. At other times, it seems we want an apology. Yet, it seems to me the nature of our desire is never reparative—can never be reparative (in the sense of repairing and restoring, in a word, healing).

For a long time, the claim seemed to be that we should “acknowledge” privilege. But acknowledgement seems about as useful as the “brotha nod,” and, honestly, perhaps not even that powerful.

I continue to maintain that there are certain kinds of privilege that should be questioned. I would hope, however, that “privilege” would become a more historical (historized) term when it arises. In part, it should alert us that historical categories have what my business writing friends call “transferable qualities.” When we invoke “privilege,” we mean to say that class (the traditional realm of privilege) provides paradigms through which we can understand gender, race, and other forms of interacting in the world. (Being in the world seems a little too precious.)

Second, we need to emphasize that privilege is not primarily or necessarily affective. One need not “feel” privileged to be experienced as such by others. Hence, the just arguments that black men can’t be privileged, and don’t “feel” privileged, because of racism do not negate claims that as men they exercise certain kinds of privilege.

We also need to acknowledge that “privilege” is not an easy concept. Every accusation of privilege must be as concrete as possible, as historical as possible, as situated as possible. More importantly, it must create possibilities for dialogue. Indeed, it should probably be less an accusation and more an invitation. Certainly, accusing others of privilege without enabling conversation simply supports the exercise of privilege.

It might be possible to live with others in the world without experiencing their existence as pressing upon one. In such a society, privilege might have little to no meaning. Often, we are seduced into thinking we inhabit just such a world.

2 thoughts on “On Privilege

  1. Second, we need to emphasize that privilege is not primarily or necessarily affective. One need not “feel” privileged to be experienced as such by others.
    The above seems to me key… or at least it struck me as I read your interesting reflections.

    In fact, (and I’m going to be somewhat abstract here, i think), it may be that the “affective” constrains or gets in the way of one “feeling” privilege… there’s more to say on this…

  2. Warning! Off topic.

    Keguro, I’ve tagged you, M’s tagged you … I for one am totally curious about what your seven would be…

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